Washington wine’s Warner has every reason to smile

By on January 1, 2015
Steve Warner, executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission, traveled throughout the Columbia Valley on Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, in support of his staff's new marketing campaign titled "The Recommendeuer."

Steve Warner, executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission, is rarely seen without his trademark smile. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

SEATTLE – Steve Warner has a perpetual smile on his face. And why wouldn’t he? The executive director of the Washington State Wine Commission has one of the plum jobs in the wine industry.

Warner, who took over the wine commission in 2011, oversees a wine region that has been on an amazing growth trajectory for more than a decade.

“As much as anything, it’s this incredible momentum we have,” he told Great Northwest Wine.

Here is our interview with Warner for this week’s Great Northwest Winecast.


Warner riding Washington wine rocketship

Hand sorting at Reininger Winery during 2013 wine grape harvest

Washington state has enjoyed three consecutive years of record harvests. The 2014 harvest is expected to be around 240,000 tons. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

After three consecutive years of record harvests, Warner said the state is poised for even greater growth.

“And that’s just talking about quantity,” he said. “But when you talk about the amazing quality, I think that says a lot about momentum and our future.”

In the past few years, Washington has evolved from being a small, interesting, niche wine region into a player – and Warner is thrilled that it’s happening on his watch and under his team’s direction.

“Who knows what really caused that?” he said. “It’s absolutely amazing, considering we produce less than 1 percent of the wine in the world. We’re at this inflection point, and we’re going to continue to build momentum going forward.”

He pointed out that the Washington wine industry’s growth is 17 percent, while the national average is about 3.7 percent.

Opportunities and improvements for Washington wine

Taste Washington takes place in Seattle.

Taste Washington manages to fill CenturyLink Field’s Event Center with wine lovers. Steve Warner wants the entire state backing its home team. (Photo courtesy of Taste Washington)

A little more than three years ago, Warner was an executive with Merck, the global pharmaceutical company, and he was based in Romania. Now, he is running the wine commission, headquartered in the great city of Seattle in his home state.

While that keeps that smile shining, Warner also sees the opportunities for improvement. He’s pleased that more influential wine professionals in retail and restaurants are more likely to recommend Washington wine to their customers.

But he also wishes the state’s 800-plus wineries had a bit more of a home-field advantage. Currently, Washington wine has a market share of around 40 percent, meaning that out of every 100 bottles of wine sold in Washington, about 40 are made here. That’s nearly half of what California enjoys, and traditional European wine regions such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany have close to 100 percent market share.

“We can still do better in our own backyard,” he said. “I’d like to see some local pride.”

Warner likens it to going to a Seahawks game at CenturyLink Field for a championship game, only to have two-thirds of the stadium filled with San Francisco 49er fans.

Looking forward to 2015

Washington State University Wine Science Center in Richland, Washington.

The WSU Wine Science Center is under construction in Richland, the heart of Washington wine country. The first classes will be held there in August 2015. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Warner believes 2015 will be another leap forward for the Washington wine industry.

While he was pleased that 35 Washington wines made the top 100 lists of major wine periodicals, he is certain the state will do even better this year because the stellar reds from the 2012 vintage will be more likely to appeal to global wine critics.

Warner also plans to unveil a new economic impact report in the first quarter, and he hinted that it will show the growing influence of Washington wine on Washington’s economy. The last economic impact report came out in 2011, and it showed the industry was worth about $9 billion annually to the state’s bottom line – and this was triple over what a 2007 report indicated.

And the crowning achievement of 2015 will be the opening of the Washington State University Wine Science Center in Richland, Warner said.

“I think it’s a game changer,” he said. “How important is it to have research done here at home? If we’re this good already, when we have the Wine Science Center in place, imagine the benefits to the entire wine industry. I truly believe it’s a game changer.”

Warner is so sold on the Wine Science Center’s effect on the industry, he’s asked the wine commission board to invest more than 20 percent of its budget to research.

“The upside potential of this is limitless,” he said. “We will have the most technologically advanced wine science center in the world.”

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is founding partner of Great Northwest Wine LLC and a longtime wine columnist. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books.

One Comment

  1. I completely agree with Steve and Andy’s proclamations that Washington State Wine has reached a breaking point in terms of awareness… everyone is talking about it now, all over the nation!

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